I wasn’t expecting to like, let alone fall slightly in love with, Buffalo. But there I was, on a trip with my partner last fall, and I was finding the same Midwestern charm I grew up surrounded by in southern Wisconsin all the way in the northeast. There was one place in particular that stole a piece of my heart: The Darwin D. Martin House Complex.
Located in Buffalo’s Parkside neighborhood, it might be the last place you’d expect to see a stunning piece of Frank Lloyd Wright history. I say this not because the surrounding homes are displeasing to look at, but more so because it’s so easy to miss. In fact, there were two occasions in which our Uber driver couldn’t locate us while we were going to and from the property. There’s no excessive signage or fanfare. If you’re driving along Jewett Parkway, you’ll be treated to a great, spanning view of the two main houses… and you could still miss it if you weren’t paying attention. The site is a neighborhood favorite that everyone in the city is proud of.
To get a full appreciation for this iconic home, let’s start at the partnership that brought it to fruition. Darwin D. Martin was a wealthy businessman who found success with the local Larkin Soap Company. When Martin found the opportunity to build a home for himself and his brother-in-law, George Barton, he requested a meeting with Wright, who had published an article titled “A Home in a Prairie Town,” in Ladies’s Home Journal the previous year (1901). The plan that came from that meeting manifested in a set of three homes, two connected by a long pergola and a conservatory, as well as a carriage-house stable and a gardener’s cottage. Wright considered this one of his best works, deeming it “a well-nigh perfect composition.”
The extra-special element in this set of homes is easy to overlook. Wright is known for his art glass, stained-glass masterpieces that line the windows in his designs. The Darwin Martin House had more art glass windows designed for the home than any of Wright’s other projects. All together, you’ll find 394 pieces of art glass in the home based on 15 core designs. Eleven of those 15 designs were created specifically for this project.
The prairie-style home is open for public tours all year round, with options for one-hour, two-hour, or full day experiences. The latter will also bring you around to different Frank Lloyd Wright sites in Buffalo. Being inside the Darwin Martin House is like taking a step into a fiction novel of many decades past: The rooms seem to be filled with golden light, thanks to the warm furniture and ample art glass. You won’t regret taking the guided tour—there are so many tiny details to celebrate that you wouldn’t necessarily notice if they weren’t pointed out. From the outside, the horizontal planes and geometric structure of the home seems to give it extra personality.
Some of my favorite details from our afternoon-long tour: The limestone birdhouses done in the same prairie style that can be spotted from the pergola. The massive (and surprisingly modern) kitchen in the main home. The stunning sculpture and small jungle in the conservatory, as well as the walkway leading up to it. The guiding ceiling beams of the living spaces. The gift shop that’s located in the stable. The breakfast nook in the gardener’s cottage was Wright’s attempt at a more modest home. The gardens facing Jewett Parkway, featuring the same types of flowers Wright planned for the yard. This is the kind of place you could spend a week exploring, and there would still be more to discover.
The most intriguing part of this home’s history is that it was almost completely forgotten. Almost. In 1935, Martin died and the home was left vacant for decades. In the 1960s, the pergola and conservatory were demolished (but never the house). The aforementioned structures had deteriorated beyond immediate repair—the carriage house, conservatory, and pergola were hit the hardest by time and weather. It wasn’t until it became a historic landmark in 1986 that the restoration conversation occurred. In 1992, the Martin House Restoration Corporation took the project on, taking ownership of the site from the University of Buffalo and beginning what would be a 27-year renovation. In July 2019, the restoration was deemed complete. This fact alone makes it the perfect time to visit this time capsule of mid-century design.
Aside from the occasional tour group entering or exiting the home, it’s hard to tell that it’s a public museum. Even so, it’s best to make a reservation in advance if you plan on visiting what Wright offered considered his “opus.” There’s something special about a Wright-designed space—maybe it’s the stacked-geometry structures or maybe it’s the light flashing off of the colored window glass. Nevertheless, being inside of the Darwin Martin House is like medicine for your soul: You’ll leave inspired, refreshed, and calmed to your core.